This article was published in the Lenoir News-Topic.

For kids, going to the dentist can be a knee-shaking, stomach-twisting, and — yes — teeth-chattering event.

But for the Happy Valley School students who received free sealants from the Caldwell County Health Department on Friday, the visit was more like a field trip.

“The kids were excited to be here,” said Jessica Tomberlin, a dentist who works with the health department’s dental clinic. “It was a good opportunity to teach them about the dentist’s office.”

Some of the nine children who came by the health department Friday morning had been to the dentist’s office only one or two times. A few had never been at all.

Tomberlin and a team of dental assistants checked the kids’ teeth and applied sealants as part of Give Kids a Smile, an American Dental Association-sponsored program aimed at providing dental care for underserved children.

A state hygienist who works in the Alexander and Caldwell county school systems screened children and referred the ones with the most need to the health department.

It’s common for low-income families to struggle to provide the dental care their children need, Tomberlin said. And sealants are a particularly important part of that care, because they protect the teeth and help prevent cavities.

A 2009 University of Michigan study found that nearly 12 million children in the U.S. experience serious barriers to dental care — because they’re uninsured, because of the cost of care or because their parents have trouble finding providers who are covered by their insurance.

When the children from Happy Valley came for their sealants that morning, Tomberlin and her assistants were careful to explain the various trappings of the dentist’s office to them — the light, the mirror, the squirting water.

The hope is that their next dentist’s visit will seem a little more familiar.

“It was good for them to kind of get adjusted,” Tomberlin said.

Nationally, about 450,000 children are served through Give Kids a Smile each year.